(Alfred) Earle Birney 1904-1995
Canadian poet, novelist, dramatist, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism from 1942 to 1996 on Birney's life and works.
Birney was a prominent Canadian literary figure throughout much of the twentieth century. Best recognized for his pioneering work in contemporary and concrete poetry, Birney was also one of the first Canadian poets to embrace the everyday rhythms of language. As his poetic styles and interests changed throughout his five-decade career, he experimented with unconventional forms and structures, and unapologetically revised earlier works to reflect his evolving aesthetic sensibilities.
Birney was born on May 13, 1904, in Calgary, where the surrounding region was still known as the Northwest Territories. He grew up close to the land and planned to make a living as a guide for hikers in the Rocky Mountains of Canada but instead was given the opportunity to attend the University of British Columbia. He graduated with a degree in English, and in 1926 he headed to Toronto for graduate school. The next year, armed with a master's degree and a new, leftist political identity, Birney traveled to Berkeley, California, where he began doctoral studies; these were interrupted by economic conditions of the Great Depression. He found a position at the University of Utah as an instructor in English, and he remained there for several years. Following a period of overseas travel and study, he returned to Canada and finished his doctoral work at the University of Toronto in 1936, then stayed for several years to teach English.
Throughout the 1930s, Birney's writing pursuits focused on the production of scholarly papers, political tracts, and news articles. After his marriage and the birth of a son in 1941, Birney began publishing verse in periodicals such as the Canadian Forum. His first book of poetry, David and Other Poems (1942), won the prestigious Governor General's medal for poetry. The same year he was assigned to an overseas post with the Canadian Army. He subsequently spent three years in England, Belgium, and the Netherlands and produced there some of his most critically acclaimed works. His war-time poetry, published in 1945 as Now Is Time, garnered a second Governor General's award.
With the war's end, Birney returned to Canada and began working for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, before accepting an invitation from the University of British Columbia to take up a professorship. During his affiliation with the university, which lasted from 1946 to 1965, Birney initiated a creative writing workshop that was the first of its kind in Canada. He also continued to travel and write, producing three more books of poetry, two novels, and a verse play, and editing several anthologies and collections of poetry, including Twentieth Century Canadian Poetry (1953). He also wrote travel features for popular magazines and began to take Canadian poetry to readers and audiences worldwide, living part-time in England, France, and Mexico, and traveling throughout South America, Asia, and Australia. His works began to embrace a global consciousness that preceded environmental social justice movements by a decade or more.
From the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, Birney traveled throughout Canada and the United States as writer-in-residence for numerous universities. He also began to experiment with diverse forms of literary expression that would lead him to embrace concrete poetry, sound poems, and other contemporary forms of poetic art. His literary output in these years included new collections of poetry, a collection of short stories and sketches, essays on the reading and writing of poetry, another verse play, and a volume of autobiography covering the years 1926 to 1979. His final book, Last Makings, was published in 1991; he had been revising it in 1987 when he suffered a stroke that left him disabled. He died in 1995 in Toronto.
Although Birney wrote widely in several genres, he is best remembered as a poet. In the early works, David and Other Poems and Now Is Time he employed conventional structure and punctuation. As Birney's poetic style evolved, he began to experiment with the visual effects of using nontraditional spacing instead of punctuation, and he revised many of his early poems accordingly, substituting spaces and new line arrangements for conventional marks such as commas, semi-colons, and periods. This drew sharp disapproval from some critics, such as Hayden Carruth, who, in a review of Selected Poems: 1940-1966 (1966), termed Birney's experimentation “prosodic fiddle-faddle.” Further experimentation led to concrete poems and “shape” poems, which rely heavily on the use of drawings or the unconventional arrangement of text for a graphic effect; Alphabeings and Other Seasyours (1976) is a collection of these visual poems, many of which evolved from what Birney termed his “doodling.” Birney also experimented with the cadence of Canadian speech to create sound poems, and he collaborated with musicians in recordings and live performances of his sound poems.
The themes of love, war, nature, and satire appear consistently throughout Birney's poetry, although their treatment varies considerably from decade to decade. Approximately five chronological categories can be identified that span his career. The earliest poems have been characterized as romantic in content and style. These were followed by the works inspired by political activism and the war years. By the early to mid-1960s, Birney, a lifelong traveler, began publishing what have been called the “tourist abroad” poems; these were the works for which he gained an international reputation as a literary figure of consequence. The poems of Near False Creek Mouth (1964), described by critic John Robert Colombo as “not still pictures but motion pictures, in sound and colour,” exemplify this stage. Birney's fourth stage of poetic development resulted in his experimentation with concrete poetry and sound poems. Finally, Birney entered a reflective stage, during which he published more introspective works such as Fall by Fury (1978). Birney's final collection, Last Makings, brought together love poems he wrote during the last decade of his career, as well as never-published verse that had been written as early as 1930.
Birney was not only considered Canada's leading poet during his lifetime, but also a valued cultural ambassador for his country. He received critical acclaim for his work as a poet, as well as for his encouragement of creativity in other poets and artists. While some critics disapproved of Birney's decision to revise some of his more traditional early works to conform to his evolving sense of poetic structure and form, others lauded the curiosity that led him to test the limits and definitions of poetry. Birney's visual and concrete poetry and other experimental forms were generally not well received by critics, but their overall assessment of his career forgave his forays into “styles and fashions that are unworthy of his real talents,” as wrote A. J. M. Smith. Writing in Canadian Literature, Fred Cogswell praised Birney's “ability to use forms derived from the whole tradition of poetry to express [ideas] brilliantly and freshly.” In Essays on Canadian Writing, critic George Woodcock acknowledged that while he found “the overtly experimental poems the least interesting of Birney's works,” he also believed that “it is his openness to the new and the unorthodox that has given Birney the freedom to find … the special voice and form appropriate to each situation.”